The premise behind Eric Emmanuel Schmitt’s play will be familiar to most people. The idea of a bureaucratic half-way station between the world of the living and the world of the dead has been used many, many times, from Powell and Pressberger’s brilliant A Matter Of Life And Death to Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice with its other-worldly waiting room staffed by suicides. Hell, to many people it seems, is an eternity of admin.
Schmitt’s play, here receiving its UK premiere at Southwark’s Union Theatre takes place in a minimalist hotel lobby. However the residents at this hotel are not on holiday in any real sense; this is where they wait while their bodies teeter on the brink, hospitalised after accident or illness, waiting to ride the elevator back down to earth, and recovery – or up, to whatever may lie in the other direction.
Colin, a womanising magazine editor (played by Anthony Wolfe), is understandably unsettled when he discovers just where he has checked in. His fellow residents include a charlatan psychic, a cleaning lady and a high-flying executive. Together they wait for their consultation with the enigmatic Dr S.
Mark Bullock’s production has its moments. The mute receptionists in angelic white (Tyrone Yansen and Siobhan Campbell) are a lovely touch and Matthew Lyne is superb, both poignant and entertaining, as the bargain-bucket fortune teller who, on the surface at least, seems to be taking his six month stay in the hotel (care of a diabetic coma) in his stride. But this is a play that would need a greater degree of visual flair than is displayed here to overcome its many contrivances. The creative team have done well, on what to be fair must have been a miniscule budget, but the production would be better off without the whiff of wobbly 1960s sci-fi that the set conjures up.
Maria Bates has the necessary authority as Dr S and Andrew Buckman provides strong support as the buffoonish businessman whose earthly dealings may not have been entirely legit, but though Anthony Wolfe has the requisite initial bewilderment as Colin, he just never convinces as the hard-drinking nihilist whose 100mph collision with a tree may not have been entirely accidental.
The final scenes are hampered by the development of a rather sugary love story and the introduction of Laura, a young woman relieved to be taking a break at the hotel after a lifetime of debilitating illness – who though well played by Lydia Watkins – feels like a clich too far. When she lets it be known that her survival depends on a donor heart being found, most people will have already worked out in what direction the play is heading.
The play’s message that our earthly deeds should not be prescribed in accordance with some perceived reward in the hereafter, that love – for ourselves and each other – should be enough, is a sweet but simple one and the piece is nicely paced. It contains some genuinely amusing episodes (not least a beautifully well-timed interjection by a passing train) as well as some committed performances but it’s unavoidably dramatically flawed, something the basic staging only highlights.